Activists Resist Proposed Rules to Curtail Protest in the Parks and Streets of Washington DC

Image: 1971 protest against the Vietnam War

Popular Resistance submitted this articulate and detailed comment in opposition to proposed changes by the National Park Service intended to curtail public use of the parks in Washington DC for the purpose of protest actions and civilian gatherings to “petition the Government [notably located in Washington DC) for a redress of grievances”. 

by Kevin Zeese and Margaret Flowers, from Popular Resistance

Re: Public Comments on Proposed Rules for First Amendment Activities in Washington, DC
Submitted By: Popular Resistance, Kevin Zeese and Margaret Flowers, co-directors
Contact: *protected email*
Date: October 14, 2018

“Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech . . . or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” – Excerpt from the First Amendment to the US Constitution.

Popular Resistance has organized and participated in many First Amendment activities in Washington, DC and provides these comments to the National Park Service (NPS) in order to share information from our experience with the hope that the NPS will protect free speech and reject creating barriers to it. Included with this comment is an affidavit from Kevin Zeese describing in more detail his experiences with First Amendment event in areas impacted by the NPS proposals. See: affidavit-for-the-nps-restrictions-of-the-first-amendment

The quotation above should be the test for NPS proposals that abridge freedom of speech, our right to peaceably assemble and our ability to petition the government for redress of grievances. As you will see from our comments, the NPS proposals violate the spirit and language of these provisions repeatedly and must be reconsidered and rejected.

We understand that President Trump is unhappy with protests around the White House, near his hotel and throughout Washington, DC. There has been a dramatic increase in protests since President Trump was elected president. In the last year, one-fifth of people in the United States say they have participated in a protest, rally or other First Amendment event. A recent poll found, “One in five Americans have protested in the streets or participated in political rallies since the beginning of 2016. Of those, 19 percent said they had never before joined a march or a political gathering.” The increase in protest and the president’s dislike of being protested is a sign that greater vigilance is needed to protect First Amendment rights. It is not a reason to abridge our rights under the Constitution. People are protesting because they see the government as not representing their interests.

The NPS should reverse course. Rather than curtailing First Amendment activities, it should be expanding the right to petition the government and for the public to express its concerns at this critical time in history. People in the United States are aware the government does not represent their interests, does not hear their concerns and is acting on behalf of a tiny minority of wealthy people instead of meeting the necessities of all the people.

As courts have ruled that money equals speech, traditional forms of political speech have become more important. People protest because the government represents the monied interests and not the people’s interests. Money rules while the political speech of people is ignored.

The serious curtailment of First Amendment rights to assemble and to petition the government for redress of grievances included in the proposed NPS rules comes at a time when the United States is facing multiple crisis situations that impact the daily lives of hundreds of millions of people in the United States. The extreme wealth divide, where three people have the wealth of the bottom 50 percent, is impacting people’s lives in many ways, e.g. inability to afford housing, unable to access healthcare, unable to afford college education, the inability to start a business, lack of mass transit, and high debts. It is leaving people struggling with economic insecurity.

Actions to curtail speech and assembly at this time are a blatant attempt to silence dissent so the government can continue to ignore the people. Silencing free speech would be one more nail in the coffin of a dysfunctional democracy.

Below we examine the specific proposals of NPS, but this broader context is essential for understanding why the proposals are going in the opposite direction of where they should be going, i.e. curtailing speech at a time when Freedom of Speech and the Right to Assemble and petition the government should be expanded.

  1. NPS Proposes Steep Costs and Fees on Demonstration Activity.

The proposal to charge protesters to exercise their constitutional rights further adds to the problem of “money equals speech.” This proposal raises legal issues and constitutional challenges, which we will not address as we address them in comments we submitted with other groups and we expect others will do so. We will focus on the practical impacts of these proposals. The NPS includes proposals to charge for so-called “special event elements” at Free Speech events. We have had experience organizing these events and urge the proposal to be rejected.

Some of the most important protests in US history — protests that were transformative to the direction of the country — involved people without financial means coming to Washington, DC to tell their representatives of their situation and how federal laws and policies were creating poverty, homelessness, unemployment and economic insecurity. Some examples include the Poor People’s March in 1968, which set up an encampment on the mall to raise awareness of widespread poverty and destitution across the country. Similarly, in 1932, the Bonus Army came to Washington, DC with thousands of people, mainly World War I veterans, walking across states and others driving across the country to lobby Congress in favor of the World War I bonus promised to be paid to veterans in 1944. They wanted the payment be moved up to 1932 when the Great Depression hit the United States. This protest was a key factor in electing Franklin Delano Roosevelt president and putting in place the New Deal which provided prosperity for workers until the 1960s. In fact, the Bonus was not given to the veterans immediately by FDR and they had to come back to Washington, DC to assemble and petition the government once again before the Bonus was granted.

There have been multiple peace marches and rallies on NPS-regulated property during times of war. The peace voice is not often heard in the halls of Congress even when the vast majority of people oppose war. This includes wars of every generation including the current ones. The people’s voices have helped to end wars and bring troops home. In the coming decade, the United States will face many challenges to its military-based foreign policy. Unilateralism is in decline, hegemony is weakening and an era of multilateralism is developing. In this transformative time, the voice of people who want to see the US move from a military-based economy to a civilian-based economy needs to be heard. People who want to see a successful change from the US as a global dominator to a positive member of the community of nations need to be heard. The NPS should not make it more difficult for people to express themselves at this critical time in history.

These are a few examples of many of critical assemblages of people in Washington, DC that could not have occurred if people were required to pay to exercise their constitutional rights.

The same types of people’s assemblies have occurred in Washington, DC in recent years. We were part of organizing the Occupation of Washington, DC at Freedom Plaza, indeed that was the forerunner of our current organization, Popular Resistance, which is making these comments. We were able to work with NPS to make a Free Speech encampment possible. We had a constructive dialogue with NPS that allowed people to exercise their constitutional right to assemble and petition the government and exercise our Freedom of Speech. From that experience, NPS should create regulations that allow encampments on NPS-regulated properties. We had to negotiate regularly with the NPS about this, it would be better to recognize our rights and allow First Amendment encampments in Washington, DC. Later in these comments, we discuss the proposal to limit protests to only one month.

One of the critical ingredients to this event was a large stage and sound system so people could make speeches about critical issues facing the country. This also included spoken-word artists as well a musicians who expressed political ideas through their art. If we had been required to pay to have a stage and sound, it would not have been possible, our speech would have been abridged. If the NPS were to take on the responsibility of deciding which activities on the stage were protected by the Constitution, it would result in NPS getting involved deeply into the First Amendment activities of people gathering to petition the government.

On Freedom Plaza, we also held our own “hearings” on the US budget. At the time, the Congress had what was known as the “Super Committee”, a joint committee of the House and Senate that was looking at the federal budget deficit. It was moving toward recommending cuts to programs including Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare among other critical safety net necessities for the people. We invited experts on a wide range of issues and on the federal budget to testify on the issues being considered by Congress. The hearings were shown on CSPAN and reported in the media. We issued our own The 99% Deficit Proposal, (http://itsoureconomy.us/2014/01/the-99-deficit-proposal/), which laid out an alternative vision of the economy and federal spending. The report began with the following:

The disconnect between Congress and the people is vast. For decades, Congress has been passing laws that benefit the 1%, their campaign donors and big business interests, rather than creating a fair economy that serves all U.S. citizens. With this report Occupy Washington, DC shows that Congress is out of touch with evidence-based solutions, supported by the majority of Americans that can revive the economy, reduce the deficit and wealth divide while create [sic] millions of jobs.

OccupyWashingtonDC.org seeks a major transformation to a participatory democracy in the economy as well as in government. For forty years, concentrated corporate interests have acted with intent to take over government and other institutions. We seek an end to the rule of concentrated wealth and corporate power by shifting control, wealth and ownership to the people.

This report puts forward evidence-based solutions that will re-start the economy and avoid placing financial burdens on future generations. For the most part these ideas are not new. They are well accepted by economists and are consistent with the views of super majorities of Americans on key issues. Further, more than three-quarters of U.S. citizens say the country’s economic structure is out of balance and “favors a very small proportion of the rich over the rest of the country.” They are right. The solutions to our economic crisis are evident but they are blocked by those who profit from the status quo and control elected officials through the corrupt U.S. political system and its money-based elections.

Many of the issues we raised are still in the public dialogue and being debated today. Progress is being made to put some of them in place. If we were required to pay to set up the sound system and stage for this activity it would not have occurred. The “Super Committee” ended up failing because of protests at Freedom Plaza, people who walked from New York City, Baltimore and Philadelphia to petition their government against their proposals as well as protests on Capitol Hill. Free Speech worked and the people were heard. This would not have occurred under these proposed rules.

Popular Resistance also participated in the Poor People’s Campaign event held on the mall in June 2018. We organized people to attend around specific issues. Our primary focus was on National Improved Medicare for All, i.e. creating a healthcare system that serves everyone in the United States equally with high quality healthcare. Improved Medicare for all would be a first step to creating an excellent healthcare system. It is opposed by those who profit from the current dysfunctional system that results in over 30,000 people dying each year because they cannot access healthcare and tens of thousands more who die annually due to inadequate healthcare and hundreds of thousands who lose their homes or become bankrupt because of medical illness. Requiring people to pay to exercise their constitutional rights would have made it impossible for the Poor People’s Campaign to have held that event on the mall and for future similar events. This was one protest of many we held in Washington, DC, including on NPS property. Now the issue is positioned to be a major one in the 2020 presidential campaign and has the support of more than 60% of the public. First Amendment events urging the issue are one reason we are making progress, and we plan to continue organizing them.

We urge the National Park Service to reject recommendations that require people to pay to exercise their constitutional rights as this is an abridgement of our Freedom of Speech, Right to Assemble and Right to Petition the government for redress of grievances. These rights should be expanded and protected by the NPS. The NPS priority when it comes to exercise of constitutional rights is to protect those rights, not to undermine them.

  1. NPS Prioritizes Lawns Over Free Speech

One of the suggested changes is to codify into law a Turf Management Plan, which requires people to rent expensive plastic covers to protect grass. This expense will prevent people and organizations with low budgets from being able to realize their First Amendment rights. Just as law enforcement agencies have other equipment, such as portable fences, for protests, the NPS can also purchase grass covers, if they are needed, and provide them for free speech events. The costs of protecting grass should not be borne by individual people who are demonstrating but by government as part of its duty to protect Constitutional rights. The sad absurdity of treating grass as more important than constitutionally protected rights demonstrates the failure of this proposal to take First Amendment rights seriously.

  1. Limits and Suppression on Spontaneous Demonstrations

Popular Resistance opposes limits placed on spontaneous demonstrations. The rule in Washington, DC has been the “24 Hour Deemed Granted Rule” that mandates swift action on applications and elimination of any deadline whatsoever for NPS to finally approve a permit application. Spontaneous demonstrations responding to breaking events will be stifled under the new proposal.

We live in a rapid media environment, not only through commercial media responding to events as they occur but also social media, which allows people to share information as it happens through cell phone video, tweets and social media posts. In order to impact the dialogue in this rapid media environment, people need to be able to mobilize quickly to show their response while the issue is still in the news. Limiting spontaneous protests will undermine the people’s ability to demonstrate their response to events.

It is challenging for organizers to rapidly respond to breaking news, but we recognize the immediate response is a critical ingredient to impacting public opinion as well as our representatives in government. Those first hours and days when an event occurs can put in place people’s understanding of an event or an issue. Under the system proposed by NPS, permits will be placed in limbo waiting for the NPS to respond. Spontaneous First Amendment events are an essential part of exercising our rights to free speech and assembly. They should not be curtailed.

NPS should be expanding the right to spontaneously demonstrate on issues of immediate concern. The presumption should be in favor of First Amendment rights, not against them. This requires the NPS proposals to be rejected and rewritten in favor of Freedom of Speech and the Right to Assemble.

  1. Closure Of White House Sidewalks and Areas Around the White House

The NPS proposal to close the White House sidewalks and the south side of the White House to protest should be rejected. Restricting signs and sound stages in Lafayette Park should also be rejected.

The White House is an iconic symbol of the US government. Protest in the area around the White House cannot be replaced by First Amendment events in other parts of Washington, DC. There is no need for these restriction as no significant problems have occurred. These proposals should be rejected and the right to assemble around the White House should be protected, not abridged.

The sidewalk and areas surrounding the White House have been the place of many influential protests. The area has been, and continues to be, a focal point for the expression of American ideals. People continue to exercise their rights of free speech at the White House. The area serves as a place for people to assemble in exercise of the First Amendment rights and to demonstrate their grievances with the president and government.

The area has been used by advocates of a wide variety of causes because of the relevance of the location in seeking to affect positive change. Campaigns held at this iconic area not only change the opinions of presidents but also are used to influence the views of fellow citizens and other government decision makers.

There have been many critical First Amendment activities held at the White House fence and surrounding areas that have changed the course of history.

In 1917, women’s rights activists petitioned President Wilson for the right to vote. They stood along the fence holding signs directed at the president to support the proposed “Susan B. Anthony Amendment” to the US Constitution that would guarantee women the right to vote. They picketed daily along the White House fence beginning on January 10. During that year, more than 1,000 women from across the country joined the picket line, between June and November, 218 protesters from 26 states were arrested and charged with “obstructing sidewalk traffic.” Ninety-seven of the women spent time in jail for this offense and were physically abused, including forced feeding when they went on a hunger strike. This protest is an iconic one that is credited with turning the tide on women’s right to vote, which was passed by Congress June 4, 1919, and ratified as the 19th Amendment on August 18, 1920.

This is one example of many. There have been demonstrations for civil rights, ending the military draft, ending wars, in response to the Kent State shootings, police violence in DC and other cities and on many other issues with the White House as the backdrop which enabled people to make pointed arguments to the president.

Currently, there has been a long term White House Peace Vigil that began in 1981 and is the longest uninterrupted peace vigil in US history. The vigil opposes war and calls for the abolition of nuclear weapons, as has been supported by the UN General Assembly but ignored by the US government. This ongoing vigil has been seen by millions of people visiting the White House. Closing this area to protest, as proposed by NPS, would end this vigil. It is impossible to replace this First Amendment activity anywhere else. This vigil has operated without serious incident for 37 years. There is no legitimate justification for the NPS taking action to close it.

We have organized multiple protests using the White House as the backdrop in order to petition the president for redress of grievances. During the Obama administration, we worked with a broad coalition of organizations advocating for Internet freedom and net neutrality. At the time, President Obama and his FCC Chairman, Tom Wheeler, opposed net neutrality. A critical part of the successful effort to gain net neutrality under President Obama was directing pressure on him and his administration. The protest we organized at the White House came at a critical point in a multi-month campaign. A photo of it was published in the Washington Post and a short time after the protest, the president announced his support for net neutrality.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was also protested outside the White House and near the White House at the Office of the US Trade Representative. One of the protests involved the “TPP Express,” a train made out of coroplast with President Obama as the engineer. The train symbolized the fast track approach to trade agreements that keeps the people and Congress out of the process and forces limited congressional debate, no amendments and an up-or-down vote. The TPP Express began in front of the White House and traveled through DC to Congress, letting the city know about this trade agreement that was being negotiated in secret by the Obama administration. The proposed rules would not have allowed this protest to occur. In the end, the movement was able to educate people about this secret agreement and make it so unpopular that Obama was unable to pass it and President Trump withdrew from it.

We also organized a protest against the Afghanistan War in 2010 on the anniversary of the war. More than 130 veterans and others were arrested for refusing to move when ordered by the police. The protest could not have occurred anywhere else as while we were outside calling for an end to the war, President Obama was inside claiming the war was making progress and being won. The US continues to fight this failed and illegal war and people need to be able to go to the White House to protest it. The White House continues to be a location for protests against war.

We have also organized protests at the White House with Korean Americans who want to see peace in their homeland. Under both the Obama and Trump administrations, we have participated in and helped to organize protests calling for an end to the Korean War with the signing of a peace treaty, an end to threats against Korea through “war games”, as well as an end to the economic war, which is devastating the people of North Korea. Progress is being made on all of these issues. We encourage President Trump to continue on the path of negotiation and peace with North Korea. If he backtracks and fails to move forward to peace, the people need to be able to exercise their First Amendment rights to assemble and urge the president to make peace with North Korea.

The above actions are examples of issues that the president has nearly complete power over, or at least takes the lead on, and the Congress is secondary. Another example is the presidential power to pardon people. There have been protests over mass incarceration urging presidents to pardon nonviolent drug offenders. We have organized protests in support of whistleblowers who have been convicted, e.g. Chelsea Manning who was pardoned by President Obama after a campaign urging him to pardon her, as well as her own actions seeking a pardon. We have organized multiple protests demanding the release of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay who have not been charged with a crime. Closing off the area near the White House prevents people from urging the president to do justice by using the pardon power to correct injustices. There is no substitute venue for First Amendment events to support the use of the pardon power in cases of injustice.

These are just some of the protests we have organized and participated in at the White House. It is an essential place for people to exercise their Constitutional right to Freedom of Speech and the Right to Assemble. Pushing people further away from the White House greatly undermines our First Amendment rights and makes it very difficult for people to tell the president about their concerns, necessities and desires.

We understand that President Trump is not pleased that people are protesting outside of the White House and along the White House fence. His displeasure at people exercising their constitutional rights is no reason to ban White House protests and close the sidewalk. There is excellent security around the White House so the president is not physically threatened. His security is not the issue. For those of us who organize First Amendment events, it is essential for us to reach the president and the White House staff. Throughout US history correction of the course of government has been needed. One of the paths to making these corrections has been people organizing First Amendment events at the White House. This should not be curtailed.

The separate proposal to prohibit the use of stages, literature tables and other structures under the tree line in Lafayette Park is essentially a ban on major protests in Lafayette Park. Trees cover the park and there would be no significant area where tables or a stage could be placed under these proposals. Without a stage and sound system large protests involving thousands of people cannot be held. This proposal should be rejected as a complete abridgment of Freedom of Speech and the Right to Assemble in the park.

First Amendment actions take the form of nighttime vigils, marches, rallies, protests along the White House fence, picketing the president, and other peaceful means of conveying the people’s necessities and desires. There are hundreds of protests each year held along the White House fence, sidewalk, in Lafayette Park and around the White House. This has been done for decades and the NPS has been able to balance the free speech and assembly rights of the people with the safety and security of the area as well as the security of the president.

Closing these areas to First Amendment events is a solution in search of a problem. There is no justification for the action except to prevent people from exercising their constitutional rights in a way that the president and members of the White House staff and executive branch can see and hear. There is no alternative space for the exercise of First Amendment rights that is equivalent to the spaces surrounding the White House. The NPS proposals take away a space for the exercise of Constitutional rights that cannot be replaced. These proposals should be rejected and for the reasons stated earlier in these comments the right to exercise our constitutional rights at the White House should be expanded.

  1. Allowing Police to Stop First Amendment Activity For Any Violation of a Permit

The NPS proposes to allow police to stop any First Amendment activity for any violation of the permit. This gives NPS officials too much power to stop people from assembling and exercising their free speech rights. The current standard requiring a ‘clear and present danger’ has worked well. Once again, these NPS proposals are being recommended to solve a non-existent problem but greatly abridge our constitutional rights.

This proposal should be rejected and NPS officers should be trained to understand their job is to to protect the Free Speech rights guaranteed in the First Amendment. We have had experiences with NPS personnel under the present rules that have threatened us with ending our activity when there was no threat to public safety or serious violations of the permit or law. The real existing problem is undermining Freedom of Speech and Assembly. This proposal makes those problems worse, not better.

When we were involved in a Free Speech event at Freedom Plaza in 2010, one of the problems was people coming to disrupt the event. These people violated the terms of our permit and under this proposal their actions could have resulted in NPS seeking to stop our event. This would be an absurd outcome, i.e. people lawfully engaging in Constitutionally protected actions being stopped by NPS because of actions taken by people who are our political opponents.

Related to this, when we complained to NPS officials about counter-protesters violating our permit, they said they could do nothing about it. This is a problem that needs to be fixed by  the NPS, but rather than addressing this real problem the NPS puts forward a proposal that abridges our rights. There are ways to balance the rights of both parties, protesters and counter-protesters. Under the present rules, NPS officials took the position that it was our problem to deal with. This needs to be corrected.

This current proposal is on the side of NPS putting in place rules that abridge our right to freedom of speech and the right to assemble. The current draft needs to be rejected and reconsidered. Instead of curtailing our constitutional rights the NPS should rewrite this proposal to protect our Constitutional rights.

  1. Ending Long Term Vigils and Protests

The NPS proposal would end long-term vigils and protests. There is no need for this change as long-term vigils have occurred while allowing for the security, safety and use of the space by others. Long term vigils are a critical First Amendment activity as they are an important strategy for influencing the government and drawing people to the movement.

Long term protests and vigils are difficult to organize because they require a challenging time commitment as well as resource commitment by people. Long term protests are only engaged in when people have very serious concerns with the direction of the country and are not being heard. As a result these types of protests are rare and therefore self-limiting. Significant long term protests have only happened three times in US history, i.e. the Bonus March, Poor People’s Campaign and Occupy. Once again this is a proposed solution by the NPS in search of a problem.

While they are difficult to organize, vigils are also very powerful. Occupying public space gets people into the public dialogue — the key purpose of the First Amendment. They are among the most powerful tool people have to exercise their First Amendment rights to assemble and petition the government in redress of grievances. The right to protest over months should not be restricted, indeed it should be protected by the NPS.

The NPS proposes that after 30 days protests can be renewed. The “renewable” part according NPS’s proposed rules, is that if the NPS agrees to renew the permit and there are any structures, they shall require that the event be moved to a different place, and in their discretion, they may to do the same even to events without any structures at all. This ensures there will be no sustained presence. That is not renewing a permit that is destroying a long term First Amendment campaign.

Earlier in these comments we described some long-term protests that have had a significant impact on the direction of the country. For example, the Bonus March of 1932 went on for several months. The protests were peaceful and nonviolent but showed the country the face of the depression and its impact on veterans and their families. By the time of the third month, Bonus Marchers engaged in a multi-day march around the Congress coming from their encampment on the mall. The march, known as the Walk of the Dead, showed ill-fed and ill-clothed veterans and their families marching silently. Even after Congress left for the summer after rejecting the Bonus, the vigils continued. This protest greatly upset President Hoover as it was occurring in a presidential election year when he was being challenged by Franklin Roosevelt, the governor of New York. As a result, Hoover made a mistake that changed the direction of the country when he ordered General MacArthur, along with Majors Patton and Eisenhower, to remove the Bonus March resulting in a military attack on veterans in the midst of a presidential election. That attack ensured Hoover’s defeat and the election of Roosevelt. The long term protest changed the course of history in a way that a one-month encampment could not have accomplished.

When we organized the Occupation of Freedom Plaza in 2011, for which we were the permit holders, significant events occurred more than one month after the protest began. Earlier in the comments, we described the protests against the “Super Committee” that was seeking to cut Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare. That occurred two months into Occupy Washington, DC.  We also used the vigil as a base of First Amendment events at the Chamber of Commerce, various banks, healthcare profiteers, the Federal Reserve and others complicit in the wealth divide and inequality. Many of these events took place after one month. We were also able to hold a Thanksgiving dinner, three months into the encampment, to show our solidarity. People from homeless communities joined that dinner.

One lesson we learned from this First Amendment Activity was when we occupy public space, we also occupy space in the public dialogue. It is more difficult to ignore people exercising their First Amendment rights when we are in public space. They see us when they walk or drive by and that creates conversation and forces media coverage. Once people leave the public space, our ability to be part of the political dialogue disappears.

A key to the impact of these protests was the long-term nature of the vigil. A long-term protest  allows a campaign to develop and grow. It ensures more people are aware of the First Amendment event and can participate. If the constitutional right to assemble is limited, then people in government know they only have to put up with the protest for a short amount of time. This greatly limits the impact of the First Amendment activity. A president and Congress can think, “they will be forced to leave soon,” rather than thinking, “will these people ever stop?

We are aware that Art Spitzer on behalf of the DC ACLU and the national ACLU has commented in support of limiting protests to one month. I do not know if the DC ACLU has ever organized or mobilized people for any protest, let alone a multi-month vigil. They were not involved in Occupy, even though First Amendment rights were raised by that protest. The DC ACLU is speaking out of ignorance of people who have not been involved in protests or long-term vigils. We are not sure why they are qualified to comment on this issue and urge the NPS to discount their comment.

This curtailment of our First Amendment rights by prohibiting long term vigils is a serious abridgment of our rights as it significantly undermines the power of protest to influence government. Long term vigils are one of the more powerful means of Assembly and Speech and should not be abridged.

  1. Curtailment of Signs and Banners

The NPS proposes to limit the size of signs and prohibit banners in large parts of Washington, DC. No justification is given for this proposal. Once again, the only purpose seems to be to abridge our Constitutional right to Freedom of Speech.

We have been part of many First Amendment activities and organized many such events in Washington, DC. These events have ranged in size from a dozen people to thousands of people. One commonality of these events is the importance of being able to express our views in ways that are visible in photographs. People organizing First Amendment events spend a lot of time on messaging in order to create messages that express our views. Once the messages are decided on, we spend time on how to share the message so that it can be captured in a photograph or video, knowing that our views are rarely reflected accurately in commercial media.

Large banners and signs are essential to exercising of Freedom of Speech because often the only thing we get in the commercial mass media is a photograph. That photograph must clearly share our message and be able to be seen from a distance. The photographer often wants to get a picture that shows the size of the protest. When they take an image from a distance, we need a large banner or sign that will show our message while also showing the crowd.

Another reason why large banners are necessary is social media. One of the goals of organizing First Amendment events is to get photographs and video that can be used on social media, that can be the basis for memes or other messages. One advantage of a banner is that in addition to the message being shown, the people holding the banner are shown. This enables us to show the types of people who participated in the protest, e.g. their ages, diversity or if someone famous is involved.

People who organize First Amendment events understand that single events are usually part of a campaign. We seek to have more people join the campaign. Photographs that show our message while also showing who is involved in the message draw people to the campaign. They can see it is a group they want to be part of, people they want to be with who are working on a goal they share.

This proposal should be rejected and the Constitutional right to Freedom of Speech should continue to include people being able to hold large signs and banners. As we write this, it seems absurd to have to even argue this point as there is no justification for limiting the size of signs and banners.

  1.  NPS Should Expand the Number of Parks Where Permits are not Required

The NPS asks for comments on whether to decrease or increase the numbers of parks where people do not need permits. We favor expansion of areas where the constitutional rights to Freedom of Speech and Assembly without interference from the government can be exercised without barriers.

Washington, DC has sufficient security to respond to protests that do not have a permit. There are more than three dozen police forces in Washington, DC, including the NPS. According to the census, Washington, DC has the highest proportion of police officers to citizens of any state or territory.

As the nation’s capital, it is the site of many First Amendment activities. Various rules have been developed by courts and the city council to manage protests. This results in police being able to provide security when protests are occurring without undermining our rights under the Constitution.

There is no need to close any parks in Washington, DC to protest or to require permits of any additional parks. If any action is taken in this area it should be to examine where restrictions can be lifted and to add to areas where permits are not required. There is a need to expand First Amendment rights not restrict them.

  1. The NPS Must Recognize the Human Rights of People in the United States to Peaceful Assembly and Political Association

In 2017 U.N. human rights investigators described an “alarming and undemocratic” trend of restricting the right to protest. Maina Kiai and David Kaye, independent U.N. experts on freedom of peaceful assembly and expression respectively, said “The trend also threatens to jeopardize one of the United States’ constitutional pillars: free speech.”  The described the chilling effects of government actions coming at a time when protests were increasing, pointing to the Black Lives Matter movement, environmental and Native American movements against oil pipelines, and Women’s Marches, as well as “individuals and organizations across (American) society have mobilized in peaceful protests.

In 1992 the United States ratified the  International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which establishes universal standards for the protection of basic civil and political liberties.  The Covenant which is the law of the land in the United States protects peaceful assembly, freedom of association and assures political protection.

Maina Kiai , the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association in 2016 found that the US permit system, which requires protesters to seek approval from courts or local authorities before demonstrating, clearly diverges from international standards on the right to peaceful assembly. The proposals of the NPS will make this violation of international law much worse.

Under international law, no authorization should be required to assemble peacefully, and a system of prior notification should only be intended to allow authorities to facilitate protests and peaceful assemblies. This standard would be a standard consistent with the US Constitution which forbids the abridgment of the rights to assemble, petition the government and to speak freely. The permit process already violates international law making them more restrictive moves the United States further into the territory of a rogue nation that ignores the law.

Kiai also recommended the United States not charge fees for protest permits. This NPS proposal goes much further, charging fees to assemble, to protest or for portions of such events. The US is diverging further from international legal standards with these recommendations.

While the United States points to alleged violations of rights in other countries like China and Russia, the world is seeing the United States not living up to its ideals, Constitution or international covenants. We urge the NPS to live up to our ideals, domestic and international law

We began these comments highlighting the rights of the People under the First Amendment to the US Constitution, we will end with the rights of the people under international law that have been accepted by the United States. These are the two pillars on which the NPS should reconsider the mistaken direction of these proposed rules.

The right of peaceful assembly shall be recognized. No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right…

Everyone shall have the right to freedom of association with others…

Excerpts from Article 21 and Article 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, ratified by the United States on June 28, 1992.


Dr. Margaret Flowers and Kevin Zeese are co-directors of Popular Resistance.   They have organized local and national campaigns for racial justice and against endless wars; in support of Chelsea Manning and in support of Single Payer Healthcare; to oppose the TTP/TTIP and more. Kevin and Margaret also have a weekly radio show and podcast called Clearing the Fog.

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